Before the pandemic, my husband and I were in the process of instilling a love of travel in our children. We both were bit by the bug in early adulthood and have been working to ensure that our children have the chance to change their surroundings, experience new places, and of course – visit different churches.
One of the places that we were fortunate to visit early in both of our children’s lives was Washington, D.C. Known as “the dark days” in our family, my husband spent several summers in D.C. attending canon law school. In an effort to make this palatable to his wife and children, we visited him during two of those summers. If you have a chance to take your kids, this can be such a fun (and educational – shhh!!) family trip. Our kids loved the Smithsonian museums, the zoo, baseball games at Nationals Park, walking around the National mall, and the “big church.”
To a three-year-old little boy, the “big church” is the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
Indeed, it is a big church. It is one of the ten largest Roman Catholic churches in the world.
Built in a Romanesque-Byzantine style on a corner of the Catholic University of America campus, it spanned decades with its construction, starting in 1920 with the first foundation stone, but due to the Great Depression and World War II would not be dedicated until 1959. It houses over 80 chapels and oratories dedicated to different ethnicities, nationalities, and religious communities. It provides a quiet and beautiful prayer space to welcome Catholics from all over the world.
And while it surely had wealthy benefactors who gave sizeable gifts, the shrine was built with donations from across the entire United States – local parishes, chapters of Catholic organizations, elementary school classes, individuals, families, religious – all sent money to help with construction. This resonates with me – that it wasn’t the church built by a single family (though don’t get me wrong – those are beautiful and holy, too!), but it was built by the faithful of our country. I love the Memorial Hall where you can see the names of all these donors on granite and marble tables lining the hall.
It struck me as I researched the church (trying to find facts beyond “it’s beautiful” and “my children were impressed”) that it is truly a beautiful focal point for our country in the current climate and season. Catholics can certainly feel tugged in multiple directions during this divisive election season, just as all Americans can.
However, no matter your economic status, your nationality, your ethnicity, your political party – we are part of “one holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.” The Roman Catholic church is the “big church,” no matter how old we are.
As Saint John Paul II said when visiting the Basilica, “This Shrine speaks to us with the voice of all America, with the voice of all the sons and daughters of America, who have come here from the various countries…. When they came, they brought with them in their hearts the same love for the Mother of God that was characteristic of their ancestors and of themselves in their native lands. These people, speaking different languages, coming from different backgrounds of history and traditions in their own countries, came together around the heart of a Mother they all had in common.”
Mary, Mother of God, pray for us and our nation.